Fines should be imposed for ‘fake news’

December 29, 2017 GMT

On the Thursday before Christmas, as the world was scrambling to wrap up the workweek and get its holiday on, the Federal Communications Commission struck a blow in the battle against fake news.

And, as usual, the ugly seam of partisan politics is stinking up the look of this particularly good deed.

The commission proposed a $13.3 million fine against Sinclair Broadcast Group — a media giant at the head of 193 television stations in 89 U.S. markets — for failing to disclose that paid programming was indeed paid programming. An FCC investigation found that Sinclair and the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah struck a deal under which Sinclair would produce and distribute promotional programming to both Sinclair and non-Sinclair owned TV stations.

You know that guy who tells viewers that the preceding announcement was paid for by so-and-so? He does so because there are federal mandates that require broadcasters to tell the viewer when someone has paid to bring content into their home. It’s the alert telling the couch commander that we’ve navigated from the local news into infomercial territory. It’s also a free market checks-and-balances tool; the rule is also there to make sure everyone knows what the competition is serving up to a pliable public. It is federal oversight aimed at transforming the unsuspecting viewer into a sophisticated consumer of broadcast media.

And, according to the FCC, it’s the ball that Sinclair dropped — more than 1,700 times — by not coming clean on paid programming that aired either as 60- or 90-second commercials that were very similar to news reports aired during local news programs or more detailed stories aired as 30-minute programs.

For this, the FCC proposed what would be the biggest fine it’s ever issued for violations of this kind; Sinclair has 30 days to respond or pay up. In a statement, Sinclair attributed the absence of sponsorship identification to human error. CNN reported Sinclair plans on contesting the penalty.

All of this is good. Nobody wants to get snookered into believing that thing we saw on the news was a piece reported by a journalist when it was really an ad paid for by someone trying to persuade the public. It’s wrong to do so.

Whether or not it was an oops, the rules protecting the public have to be enforced. If there was any doubt about the tremendous power of ideas and messages brought into America’s homes over the airwaves, it has become clear as it is being quickly eclipsed by the even bigger power of those ideas and messages in the era of the internet. The FCC has to protect us from ourselves.

Yet there’s the partisan stuff to deal with, because there is dissent on whether the biggest proposed fine of its kind is the real deal. The Democrats on the commission oppose the fine, saying that while it is indeed big, it’s not enough for such an offense from such a media behemoth. Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, in opposing the fine, pointed out that the company has broken rules of this kind before.

In a response, Trump-appointed FCC chairman Ajit Pai says anything bigger would be unfair to the conservative-leaning Sinclair. All of which is being debated as Sinclair Broadcast Group prepares to acquire Tribune Media. This merger would take Sinclair up to 233 television stations — three of those in the San Antonia area.

The partisan angles shouldn’t mean anything, because the FCC needs to be protecting the public from more than Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunctions, weather emergencies and the like. The commissioners — like the president — should serve the public, not the party. But we’re realistic.

We’ve seen a lot and, by now, we’re far from unsuspecting. But when it comes to the ever-growing magic of media messages, we’re still couch-sitting ducks.